The legendary song-writing duo of John Lennon and Paul McCartney most certainly did not have Nam Nguyen — or figure skating — in mind when they penned the words to “Get Back,” a 1969 hit song by The Beatles.
But the catchy chorus line from that tune — “Get back. Get back to where you once belonged” — ever familiar to even the most casual fan of the British supergroup, might just serve as an appropriate mantra for Nguyen’s skating career at this point in time — even though he admits the thought never crossed his mind when picking the trio of Beatles tunes for his long program this season.
When asked if there was something deliberate about his song selection, which also includes “Come Together” and the iconic “Let It Be” Nguyen said he had seen a post on Instagram or Twitter that asked the same question, but that did not enter his head when he was selecting his music. “I only listen to the melody and the vibe that it gives off, not the lyrics.”
OVERCOMING THE OBSTACLES
If it seems the vibe that Nguyen is giving off so far this season is that of the former prodigy who seemed destined to lead the next generation of Canadian men when he won the senior national title in 2015 at age 16 — the youngest ever to do so — he does not disagree with that line of thinking.
But this is not the same Nguyen today as back then — he is five years older and wiser, seven inches (17.78cm) taller (5-foot-10/177.8 cm) and has matured in many ways through some troubling times that went along with two very large growth spurts.
It seems that Nguyen may once again feel like the rising star that won Canadian titles at four different levels by the time he was age 12, and added the senior crown three years later. “In a sense, I do. But at the same time, I do not want to go back to that part (of my life) anymore. It was so different back then. I was shorter and everything was a lot easier for me.
“Now I want to build a new path for myself. I want to build a path that I can be proud of … with my team, my coaches and the people I work with. Now is different from 2015. I do feel like I’m finding the rhythm I had back then, but I’m hoping to do a lot more. I know I’m capable of doing more than what I’m doing right now.”
The silver medal he won at Skate Canada in October — his first at a senior Grand Prix since 2014, and only his second ever — offered some early season validation for that mindset. While his sixth-place finish at Rostelecom Cup in Russia two weeks later ended Nguyen’s chance to reach the Grand Prix Final (he finished seventh in the Series and was the first alternate), it is not likely to mess with his positive mindset. That might be the biggest victory of all at this point in time.
It has been a long hard road to get where he is now — one that Nguyen and the skating community was hardly expecting after he won the World Junior title in 2014, the national crown a year later, followed by a fifth-place finish at the 2015 World Championships. Everything, it seemed, was trending upward for a skater then considered a rising star in the sport.
Then came the growth spurts, which had a large impact on his jumping technique, and Nguyen’s career began to spiral in the opposite direction. He did not make the podium at 2016 nationals but went as an injury replacement to the World Championships in Boston, where he failed to advance past the short program. Two months later, he was gone from his training base at the Toronto Cricket Club and had relocated to San Jose, California. All of it had Nguyen pondering whether he wanted to keep skating. “After Worlds in Boston, when I didn’t make the long program, I did think about quitting,” Nguyen admitted. “And then I moved to California and that wasn’t too much fun either because I was living on my own, and it was extremely difficult for me. It was in that chunk of time that I really wanted to quit.”
By the end of 2016, he was back in Toronto, working under the tutelage of coaches Tracey Wainman and Gregor Filipowski at the York Region Skating Academy. Another coaching change followed in November 2017, when he relocated to the Richmond Training Centre north of Toronto, his current training base, where he is coached by Robert Burk.
The effects of the turmoil of two lost seasons, when Nguyen admits he lost his love for skating, bubbled to the surface at the 2018 Canadian Championships. He produced his best free skate at nationals in three years and, when he arrived in front of the media, Nguyen was sobbing, his shoulders heaving with the release of so much pent-up emotion. But his journey was finally heading down a positive road again, even if the bronze-medal finish there left him one spot shy of making the team for the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.
“I had gone through a lot of changes in less than a year. Just going through all that was stressful enough,” he said. “Any skater can tell you that switching clubs brings a lot of change in terms of training and how you communicate with a new coach. For me, that was really hard, and also with the Olympics in mind, it added more stress to it.
“But Robert did just such a tremendous job to keep me mentally sane going into nationals. It did hurt not being able to make it to the Olympics, but in my mind, Keegan (Messing, who placed second behind Patrick Chan) had already put his body of work out there during the Grand Prix season and it made more sense for him to go. “Keegan did a great job at the Olympics and I was so happy for him,” said Nguyen.
When Chan chose not to go to the post-Olympic Worlds in Italy, the spot went to Nguyen. Again, he did not qualify for the free skate and doubts began to creep back into his mind.
On the heels of that experience Nguyen made a decision that he believes put him on the right track. A year ago, he took charge of his own career, including paying the bills and all the responsibilities that go along with it. “That was really not fun. It was a crisis moment for me,” Nguyen said of 2018 Worlds. “I could have quit and taken the easy way out, but I wouldn’t have been able to let myself live with that forever. “I needed to give myself one more chance, and that’s when taking responsibility and ownership came into play for me. I haven’t looked back since.”
Burk has provided a lot of guidance in that area, and though it remains a heavy burden, it is one that Nguyen willingly accepts. It is the reason that he is more committed than ever to the sport, and feels he is reaping the rewards every time he steps onto the ice. “Honestly, I ask myself every day when I wake up, ‘Why am I still doing this?’ It’s the hardest thing ever, but I’m enjoying it and as long as you have that enjoyment, you can get through it,” said Nguyen. “I’m skating at a place where everybody supports me, and I feel like I’m at home. My coach is pretty much like a second dad to me. He’s helped me so much, not just on the ice but also off the ice, especially at the beginning of last season.
“Everything was so new and foreign to me, trying to take on this thing. But I’m really happy with where I am right now, and I can’t wait to continue building upon this.” Nguyen was the surprise winner of the 2019 Canadian men’s title, and the result reinforced in his mind that the new career direction he had chosen was the right one. “That (victory) really set me on the path to being more committed to where I was at the beginning of last season,” said Nguyen, who would go on to finish 16th at the World Championships in Japan.
“I told everybody that I’m taking care of myself in the sport now, and it gave me a sense of commitment, a lot more than I’ve dealt with in the last few years. And winning nationals, really opened up my eyes to what I want to do in the sport. “I’m 21 years old and I’m not taking anything for granted nowadays. I’m more than happy to accept and take on every opportunity that comes my way. I will use that (Canadian title) as an experience and a building block for my career in the long run, that’s for sure.”
While Nguyen considers himself blessed to have the ongoing support of his parents, Sony and Thu, and a group of friends who have “been with me through thick and thin,” it’s Burk who gets the credit for rekindling his love for the sport. “Everything goes to my coach because he’s the one that really got me to enjoy skating again. He really changed my perspective on figure skating,” Nguyen explained.
“Before, it was all business and just getting everything done. But with Robert, if you have a bad day, it’s not really a big deal, you come back the next day and you’ll be even better, and that’s a mentality that’s been sticking with me since Day 1 with him.”
When Nguyen brings that joy for skating to the ice, you get what happened at 2019 Skate Canada. After his short program performance — “Blues for Klook” choreographed by Mary Angela Larmer — Nguyen found himself in third place. He drew last to skate in the free behind eventual gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu, who brought the house down with what Nguyen called “a godlike performance.”
Then it was his turn, and Nguyen quickly turned his long program into a party, for both himself and the home crowd. While he was technically proficient with a pair of quads and triple Axels in his program, the biggest takeaway was the smile that he wore on his face for most of the four-minute performance. “From the very get-go, from my starting position, I was already in the character of what I wanted to portray with this program,” he explained. “I was in the swagger mode that I had intentionally planned for this program. And from there, the audience got into it and really gave me the support that I needed. Once you have that, once you have the audience in the palm of your hand, it’s just hard to go off. It’s hard to make a mistake. I was smiling from beginning to end and I was just having the time of my life.”
Getting the audience involved was what Nguyen had in mind when he chose the trio of Beatles tunes for the program. He had originally planned to skate to a Queen medley but backed off when he realized Italy’s Matteo Rizzo had used Queen music last season.
Toward the end of the routine there was some ad lib, with Nguyen pointing into the crowd on a couple of occasions. If you are thinking it’s the kind of thing that, say, Kurt Browning might do (remember “Casablanca” at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics?) … that would be because the four-time World champion choreographed the program along with Danielle Rose, who is part of Nguyen’s coaching team. “That’s where ‘Get Back’ really tied it all together,” he said of the process of building the program. “That last part, the choreo step sequence … I told Kurt and Danielle ‘I want it to be a party. I literally want people to be out of their seats.’”
When Nguyen later watched a video of his performance, he noticed a woman in the audience doing exactly that during the step sequence. “Everyone was going along with it and having a good time, but to see that one person pretty much jump out of their seat when I came down to that end of the ice and to really have fun with it … it made me so happy and it really warmed my heart to see that.”
When he was finished, Nguyen collapsed in a heap on the ice — something he had vowed he would never do. “I understand why skaters do that, just out of pure joy or sheer exhaustion,” he said. “I told myself I would never do that, but I put out what I think was the greatest skate of my life and the crowd’s energy was unreal. I’ve never, ever experienced anything like that. It just overcame me. Now I kind of understand why people do that, but I’ll never, ever do that again. I’m going to stick to the barrage of fist pumps and all that.”
Based on the combined placements of Nguyen (16th) and Messing (15th) at 2019 Worlds, the host country can field only one man in Montréal. Nguyen was given the spot following the Four Continents Championships where he finished ahead of Keegan Messing and Roman Sadovsky. “Worlds being on home soil really excites me. It’s home-town advantage and all that. Montréal people are wild and they’re fun … It will be an honor and a privilege to represent Canada in Montréal.
Nguyen marvels at the progress the sport continues to make in terms of the technical difficulty in programs today, especially in the ladies’ discipline. He is blown away by the hefty talent — and in particular, that of the trio of Russian teenagers (Alexandra Trusova, Alena Kostornaia and Anna Shcherbakova) who dominated the Grand Prix Series and Europeans this season. “I’m just glad they’re not in the same discipline as me,” he said with a laugh. “At the press conference at Skate Canada, somebody asked me about that, and I said if we ever had to compete against those ladies, I would get out. It would be like, ‘I’m not competing anymore. I’m done with skating.’ Not only is it impressive what they do, it’s absolutely terrifying. They are talented to the point that I can’t even understand how talented they actually are.”
Though Nguyen sometimes wishes the sport’s growth would slow down a bit, he is very happy to still be in the game, given there was a time not so long ago that simply was not the case. “I haven’t had the feeling of not enjoying skating in such a long, long time,” he said. “There is the odd moment when I think about the progress of the sport and it will be like: ‘What is going on? This is unbelievable.’
“I absolutely love where it’s going, but it’s fast paced. The Russian girls are taking over the sport like crazy, but it adds a level of excitement for the audience, which is needed. Skating is starting to become more popular again, which I love to see. Hopefully it continues to build.”